Mississippi State football faces off with Arizona on Saturday. What can we expect out of the Wildcat defense?
In our last piece, we broke down an Arizona offense that may present some problems for Mississippi State football. The Cats have a good bit of talent on that side of the ball and are built to exploit the potential weak spots of the Bulldogs’ defense.
But the other side of the ball is a different story. Or at least, it might be.
Though Arizona was strong offensively in 2022, their defense was quite simply bad. They were 126th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 36.5 PPG. You don’t need much more context than that, but even the opponent-adjusted SP+ formula that takes into account the quality of the offenses faced (and Zona faced several really good ones) had them ranked in the exact same spot.
It doesn’t matter how good your offense is. If your defense is that poor, you aren’t winning many games.
Smartly, Arizona didn’t try and just run it back with what they had last year. They instead loaded up heavily in the portal, bringing in several transfers out of Power 5 programs. Five starters on defense are transfers, including four from the front six.
And at least for Week 1, it seemed to payoff. They held FCS Northern Arizona to just 3 points and 3.8 yards per play. To be clear, NAU is not a good FCS team. But they weren’t a good FCS team when they upset Arizona 21-19 in 2021 either. For this Arizona defense, holding any opponent to single digits and well under 300 yards of offense is a major improvement.
There’s absolutely no telling if they’re improved enough to stop Mississippi State’s offense. But at the very least, they should provide more of a challenge than they did in 2022.
Players to Watch
The first guy who absolutely deserves mentioning for the Wildcats is weakside LB Jacob Manu. Manu may play for the Cats, but he is a straight DAWG. At just 5’11, 225, he’s pretty undersized for the position. But he more than makes up for it with physical play. He’s one of those guys who’s simply always around the football and will aggressively run up to meet the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage.
Or, as the SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic pointed out, he’ll aggressively run up to meet pulling lineman in the backfield.
Manu led the team with nine tackles against NAU and got involved on a sack.
Zona has four new starters along their DL. DE Taylor Upshaw, NT Bill Norton, and DT Tia Savea are all transfers from other P5 programs, and KAT (pass rush position within Zona’s 4-2-5) Isaiah Ward is a redshirt freshman. This group is significantly upgraded from where they were a year ago, both in size and talent.
Norton is a 6’6, 325-pounder who transferred in from Georgia. He had a strong debut for the Wildcats, terrorizing NAU’s interior OL. Here’s a great example of that disruption. On a 3rd and 2 he blows by his blocker and is able to slow down the RB who ultimately gets tackled for no gain by…Jacob Manu.
Arizona’s DBs showed no hesitancy to swarm to the ball and make tackles. They were very aggressive in coming up to stop the run game. STAR (nickel) Treydan Stukes led the team with 2 tackles for loss in Week 1, blowing up this run in the backfield before it ever had a chance.
How Mississippi State’s offense matches up
How well does State match up? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you with any certainty.
It’s near-impossible to take anything away from last year’s game considering Mississippi State is now running an entirely different offense, and the vast majority of starters in the Arizona defense weren’t playing in that game. What we see between these units on Saturday likely won’t resemble what we saw a year ago.
Simply because of Zona’s newness with defensive personnel, it’s also hard to do much scouting of any of their games last season. It’s just not the same defense. Still, I did try and find a game featuring an opposing offense that I think most resembles what MSU is now doing, and that game was UCLA.
If you think Chip Kelly is still running the hyper-tempo, zone-read based, “spread to run” attack that he took over CFB with at Oregon back in the early 2010s, you’d be mistaken. That style of play isn’t quite as advantageous a decade later, as plenty of offenses adopted a similar approach and defenses eventually adjusted to it.
Chip’s offenses at UCLA have been quite a bit different. They’re still run-heavy, spread attacks, but he’s dialed back the tempo significantly and now favors getting into big personnel packages with heavy-involvement of the TE in the passing game. He bases a lot around Wide Zone, leaning on that as a core run concept and play-actioning off it. It’s a formula you’re seeing become more popular across the sport right now, and I think it’s what Mississippi State ultimately aspires to be.
Arizona’s game-plan against the Bruins last season was pretty basic. They almost exclusively played Cover 3, which tends to be standard operating procedure against a run-heavy offense. You get an extra defender down near the line of scrimmage to help stop the run while having three deep defenders to limit big plays in the passing game. On 3rd downs, they played man and tried to get pressure (which they actually did a good job of).
This wound up being a pretty successful formula. UCLA gained a ton of yards, including 219 on the ground, and they even hit a handful of the explosive plays that Zona was specifically aligning to prevent. But for the most part, Zona forced UCLA to have to go on long, sustained drives to put points on the board. They trusted that they wouldn’t be able to pull it off for an entire game, and sure enough, they got just enough stops that they pulled off a massive upset win.
I can see Arizona taking a similar approach on the road in Starkville against a Mississippi State team that now adopting an offense somewhat similar. Speaking of MSU, I do expect that you’ll see the Bulldogs challenge Zona’s new look defensive front early on. They’re going to want to see if they can still dominate in the trenches. If State can get it’s run game going, they should have good opportunities in the play-action game with Zona’s defenders aggressively coming up to stop the run.
If Arizona does go with a lot of Cover 3, that means State would have looks to work the short to intermediate passing game frequently, and that just happens to be exactly what Will Rogers and State’s receivers have plenty of comfort doing given their previous offense.
Putting together sustained drives through quick passing is nothing new to them. And in Week 1 Zona still had some coverage busts that allowed for NAU to hit some decent plays through the air. So it’s possible we see a bit of the old mixed in with the new from State.
The execution errors we saw from MSU early on in Week 1 can’t happen to open this game. Unlike Southeastern Louisiana, Arizona’s offense is capable of building out a lead. Mississippi State’s offense has to get off to a quick start.